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At his best, John Duigan makes determinedly small movies out of classic themesmost notably the unfinished Australian trilogy that begins with the fittingly titled The Year My Voice Broke. His latest, Lawn Dogs, is set in the stifling suburbs of Louisville, Ky., but it has the same child-size scaled and sometimes amateurishly earnest performances of an honest little foreign film.
Lawn Dogs is knee-deep in symbolism but has the grace to spell out its metaphors. Set in the seemingly placid dream world of upscale suburban achievement, it’s the story of 10-year-old Devon (Mischa Barton), the princess of a particularly soul-numbing realm. Devon tells her own story, beginning with “Once upon a time” and revealing herself, the privileged daughter of a taut yuppie couple, as the damsel in distress intrigued but threatened by the dark forest of poverty and pickup trucks outside the confines of Camelot Gardens, a hideously serene gated community.
Spruce in her uniform and jaunty little cap, she sets out one morning with a wagonful of cookies (into the dough of which she’s mashed a fly in lieu of a raisin) to sell and ends up walking out the brick walls. Devon doesn’t know she’s adventurous she’s just frustrated.
Her impatience is paralleled by that of the local lawn-tender Trent (Sam Rockwell), a laconic young man from the other side of the gates who is just too old to be doing boy’s work. Trent tries to stay invisible to the spiteful ex-cop who patrols Camelot Gardens and also to the muscle car-driving frat boys who taunt him. At the same time, he is all too invisible to the homeowners who barely deign to pay him and look on him with horrified suspicion.
But the cliché-ridden script by Naomi Wallace woefully can’t leave well enough alone; Trent is hounded by the bad rich people who are shown to be the real societal rot: Devon’s mother is carrying on with one of the frat boys, a tow-headed child is a violent secret thief, and everyone takes every opportunity to be snobbish and inconsiderate. Only little Devon stays aloof and questioning, until she wanders into the den of darknessthe witch Baba Yaga’s hut from the fairy talesTrent’s trailer.
Lawn Dogs makes the most of the pristine horror of Camelot Gardens and the lush Southern swamp just outside. Trent and Devon cobble together a strange friendship that frees them both, for a while; they even have matching scars, hers from a dicky heart, his from a gunshot that ended his champion diving career.
The community landscape is shot like an eerie sales brochurethe vistas a little too wide, the houses too new, the lawns anally prim. But the script isn’t news; Wallace doesn’t let a single cliché of middle-class duplicity go undemonstrated. For most of the movie, the deck is stacked so thoroughly in Trent’s favor that his triumph over the snobs and hypocrites is inevitable.
But Duigan is trickier and more poetic than his premise; the blunt fairy-tale simile that opens the film sets up a series of unforgettable imagesa bare tree festooned with red ribbons, the scrabbling knuckles of forest overgrowthand draws nicely elastic boundaries in which the tale twists and turns. Devon is forced to recast her roster of villains and heroes as the story progresses, shifting the main players as she experiences better and worse sides of human nature than she has heretofore seen in the mythical Camelot.
The predictable writing and sometimes stilted acting do not prepare you for Lawn Dogs’ stunning ending: a moving, surreal denouement that slots the fairy-tale pieces in place. The sight of a river closing over a bridge is both mystical and scary, but moreover, it shows magic coming alive not through the little girl’s circumstances but through her strength.
A Perfect Murder, perhaps, but not much of a movie. Director Andrew Davis and fledgling screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly have “contemporized” (Davis’ word) Frederick Knott’s play Dial M for Murder and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film adaptation by making all the characters hateful and devoid of conscience, and their worldcontemporary Manhattan high societyone that forgives such people anything if they have enough money.
Perhaps it’s just old age, but it is getting harder to root for peopleor screenplaysthat take at face value such amoral assumptions as drive this plot. Michael Douglas’ super-rich industrialist Steven Taylor doesn’t appear, at first, to be such a monstrous husband that his wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow), can legitimately tell her best friend, “You don’t know what life is like with him.” Obviously, Emily’s scared of somethingshe cringes when Steven walks into the room; she flinches, gulps, stares in panicbut the boneheaded script never tells us what.
Steven’s secret machinations reveal him to be evil; then again, he could just be sick of living with that gasping, wincing woman and fed up with her affair with a truly terrible painter who calls himself David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). The movie’s cold modern moral scale glorifies this affair as the one nice thing that’s happened to Mrs. Taylor; the best friend is all excited about Emily’s good luck, and presumably we’re supposed to hope she lives through this.
In a thriller, after all, much of the audience’s thrill depends on hoping someone sympathetic comes out alive, and Dial M’s plot leaned heavily on unexpected deaths and turnarounds that exploited these sympathies. But these people are not worth preserving. The Taylors’ marriage is so awful, at least in Cringey’s view, and she’s screwing around with this scheming
idiot who won’t speak up (Mortensen is virtually incomprehensible), and Douglas struts around in the billion-dollar suits and expressive jowls he wears for every moviewho cares? Kill ’em all.
The humorless script is full of inanities, and Davis’ humorless direction doesn’t seem to understand that much of the story’s point is surprise. Emily’s a multilingual translator at the U.N., where she listens to a speech from a guy whose seat is labeled “Yugoslavia.” The success of the murder scheme depends on the fact that this insanely rich couple does not own an answering machine. And if you’re not sure what’s going on, the bludgeoning soundtrack will spell it out: Hot rock music plays while David and Emily have sex in his inevitable loft, and crescendoing “panic” music rises throughout the very bloody first murder and frantically signals itsand the scene’sclimax from a good distance (so you know when to close your eyesit’s really icky). And the local police precinct doesn’t
need clues to catch the mastermind of
the scheme; they’ve got Detective Karaman (David Suchet), who immediately zeros in on Steven as if the guy were
wearing a “Kiss Me, I Plotted to Kill My Wife” button.
Douglas’ richie-in-hot-water act is wearing thin, although he’s settling into it like the old pro he is: He taunts, prowls, and holds all the cards; then the tables are turned and he panics, sweats, and trembles about the jowls. Paltrow has never looked puffier or more nondescript, and Mortensen, normally so good, is just unforgivable here, mumbling and shuffling like a sedated mental patient. Steven smirks around David’s loft, making teasing commentary such as “The color of despair; wonder where that comes from.” But instead of saying, as a thinking person would, “What the hell are you talking about?” the artist gives his usual insightful retort: “Rrunshrofurfmer.”CP